When World War I ended on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" in 1918, it was immediately cemented as an essential day in history. A year later, on November 11, 1919, the first anniversary was celebrated as Armistice Day.
“To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations," President Woodrow Wilson said on that day.
While the observance became an annual tradition by 1926, it wasn’t officially a national holiday until 1938.
But then in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day — expanding the historical anniversary to be a date that honored all veterans — living or dead — who fought in any war.
Here, we salute a dozen famous names who also served our country in war, earning the respect of the title "veteran”:
In 1956, Elvis Presley had his first No. 1 single with “Heartbreak Hotel” as well as his first No. 1 self-titled album — plus his first movie, Love Me Tender, was a hit. And then the following year, he was drafted.
When his famous locks were shaved off, he commented: “Hair today, gone tomorrow.”
“I was in a funny position,” he said in an interview with the Armed Forces Radio and Television. “Actually, that's the only way it could be. People were expecting me to mess up, to goof up in one way or another. They thought I couldn't take it and so forth, and I was determined to go to any limits to prove otherwise, not only to the people who were wondering, but to myself.”
But Presley — who died in 1977 — ended up working his way up to sergeant, noting, “The Army teaches boys to think like men.”
While actress Bea Arthur, who died in 2009, will forever be remembered as Dorothy on the 1985 to 1992 sitcom The Golden Girls and the title character on the 1972 to 1978 series Maude, she was one of the first members of the Women’s Reserve, registering under the name Bernie Frankel.
In a letter that was later released, it all happened on a whim: “I was supposed to start work yesterday, but heard last week that enlistments for women in the Marines were open, so [I] decided the only thing to do was to join.”
And since she hadn’t turned 21, she needed her parents’ permission to enlist. But on February 20, 1943, she became part of the Marine Corps, working both as a truck driver and a typist. She was promoted from corporal to sergeant to staff sergeant while stationed in Virginia and North Carolina before being honorably discharged in September 1945 — and going on to Broadway success (even earning a Tony Award) before her television fame.
Back in 1955, Morgan Freeman was offered a scholarship to Jackson State University. He turned it down and joined the Air Force instead.
“I took to it immediately when I arrived there,” he told Interview. “I did three years, eight months, and 10 days in all, but it took me a year and a half to get disabused of my romantic notions about it."
Indeed, Freeman’s love at first sight took a turn. “When I was getting close to being accepted for pilot training, I was allowed to get in a jet airplane,” he continued. “I sat there looking at all those switches and dials and I got the distinct feeling that I was sitting in the nose of bomb. I realized my fantasies of flying and fighting were just that — fantasies. They had nothing to do with the reality of killing people. What I wanted was the movie version. So that was the end of the whole idea of doing anything other than acting for me. I’ve never had any other vocation.”
Both his father and grandfather were four-star admirals, so it’s no surprise that John McCain was literally born on a naval base at Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone. Being raised at various naval bases around the globe, the six-term U.S. senator from Arizona graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1958.
He volunteered for combat duty in the Vietnam War and was spared injury when his A-4 Skyhawk jet was shot accidentally by a USS Forrestal missile in July 1967. Three months later, his plane was shot again over Hanoi.
With two broken arms and a broken leg, he was taken to prison camps and held for five and a half years because of his father’s status as a commander. There, he suffered tremendous torture as a victim of propaganda, becoming one of the most famous American prisoners of war.
“I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s,” McCain, who died of brain cancer on August 25, 2018, said during his 2008 Republican presidential nomination speech. “I loved it for its decency, for its faith in the wisdom, justice, and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again; I wasn’t my own man anymore; I was my country’s.”
Before Johnny Cash became a best-selling country singer-songwriter, nicknamed the Man in Black, he was a member of the U.S. Air Force. Enlisting as “John R. Cash” just after the start of the Korean War, he trained at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. He served as a radio intercept officer using high-speed Morse Code to eavesdrop on the Soviet Army radio while stationed Landsberg, West Germany.
Cash wrote in his autobiography that he was the first American to intercept reports of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. It was during his downtime in Germany that he started to write songs, including “Folsom Prison Blues,” and also started playing live music with an Air Force band called Landsberg Barbarians.
Working on radios in the military seemed fitting for Cash. "That was the big thing when I was growing up, singing on the radio,” he said. “The extent of my dream was to sing on the radio station in Memphis. Even when I got out of the Air Force in 1954, I came right back to Memphis and started knocking on doors at the radio station.”
The future novelist, who died in 2003, also wrote his first published piece for the military paper, Stars and Stripes.
As the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong long had a fascination with flight. Fittingly, that led him to get a pilot’s license as a teenager and then study aeronautical engineering at Purdue University, thanks to a scholarship from the U.S. Navy.
After training as a Navy pilot in 1949, Armstrong — who died in 2012 — served in the Korean War, flying 78 combat missions until 1952 and logging in 2,600 hours in flight, including 1,100 in a jet aircraft. Although he was thrown from a F9F Panther jet early on, he also earned three air medals.
After his service, he was in the U.S. Naval Reserve for eight years until 1960. Two years later, he was chosen as an astronaut by NASA, which led to his famous walk on the moon in 1969.
U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth is used to breaking barriers. She was the first disabled female veteran elected to the House of Representatives and the Senate — and the second Asian American senator ever.
Born in Bangkok, Thailand, she grew up around Asia before settling in Hawaii. While earning her Ph.D. at Northern Illinois University, she joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps with the Illinois Army National Guard and was trained as a Blackhawk pilot.
Deployed to Iraq in 2004, her helicopter was hit by a grenade and she lost both her legs and partial motion in her right arm. The Purple Heart recipient became assistant secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs under President Barack Obama.
"I was hurt in service for my country. I was proud to go,” she told The Washington Post. “It was my duty as a soldier to go. And I would go tomorrow."
Clint Eastwood has held many titles in his time: actor, director, producer, Academy Award winner, Mayor of Carmel, California — and military swim instructor. “I was drafted during the Korean War. None of us wanted to go,” he said. “It was only a couple of years after World War II had ended. We said, ‘A second? Didn't we just get through with that?’”
He ended up being stationed fairly close to home in California’s Fort Ord, where he taught swimming. But he did face grave danger when he was on a plane that ran out of gas and had to jump off in the Pacific Ocean, swimming a mile to shore.
Eastwood studied drama under the GI Bill after he was discharged in 1953.
While she’s better known for her role as the leader of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman was also the first woman in American history to lead a military expedition as a spy for the Union during the Civil War.
After having successfully made more than a dozen trips from the South to North between 1850 and 1860, Tubman’s highly coveted skillset for clandestine operations was clear. Sometime around 1862, she started gathering intelligence, even building a spy ring.
One of the most challenging missions was helping Colonel James Montgomery free slaves from South Carolina plantations along the Combahee River. Despite the precariousness of the situation with the Confederates lurking nearby, the group freed 750 slaves.
The United States’ first African American Secretary of State is also a retired four-star general.
While studying geology at the City College of New York, Colin Powell enrolled in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) and quickly became a commander.
In 1962, he was sent to South Vietnam and got hurt the following year by a booby trap on the Vietnamese-Laotian border. He was given a Purple Heart and later also got a Bronze Star. He returned to Vietnam in 1968 and was hurt in a helicopter crash, but managed to rescue others along the way out of the inferno, earning him the Soldier's Medal. He also went on a tour of duty in Korea in 1973. Altogether, the Legion of Merit holder has 11 military decorations.
By 1982, he became the national security advisor under President Ronald Reagan and in 1989, George H. W. Bush appointed him chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the highest Department of Defense military position.
Living in the tough streets of South Central Los Angeles, Ice-T needed help financially — so he turned to the Army. “When I had my daughter I was like, man, I'm going to go to jail, I got to do something, and I went to an enlistment office,” he said. “Next thing you know, I'm in the military, four years infantry.”
While he was deployed as a squad leader at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, he was able to buy musical equipment, including a mixer, turntables and speakers, which helped him start his rap career.
After being expelled from school, Humphrey Bogart joined the U.S. Navy to fight in World War I. He summed his time up as: “War was great stuff. Paris! French girls! Hot damn! ... The war was a big joke. Death? What does death mean to a kid of 17?"
Records show that he was a strong sailor and ferried boats between the U.S. and Europe. After an incident where he missed a ship, he was forced into three days of solitary confinement, but still honorably discharged in 1919. He also joined the Naval Reserve.